I have on my shelves nineteen volumes of a twenty-volume set of books titled, "Makers of History." A little bit of research on the Internet tells me that this set was first published in the middle of the 19th century, by Harper and Brothers; was aimed at 15 to 25 year olds; was popular in schools and libraries across America; some editions had as many as 33 volumes; and the series enjoyed a republishing history into the early 20th century. And apparently, some of the books are still being republished in the 21st.
Although in their day they were classified as "juvenile history" (they were strong on a sense of adventure and somewhat romantic portrayal of their subject matter), their popularity and perceived value went far beyond the students and young scholars who first read them. If the following quote is to be believed, Abraham Lincoln wrote this to the authors, Jacob Abbott and his brother, John Charles Abbott:
"I want to thank you and your brother for Abbott’s series of Histories. I have not education enough
to appreciate the profound works of voluminous historians, and if I had, I have no time to read
them. But your series of Histories gives me, in brief compass, just that knowledge of past men and
events which I need. I have read them with the greatest interest. To them I am indebted for about
all the historical knowledge I have."
Hmmm. Allowing for the fact that expressions of gratitude may be more fulsome than we might truly mean, I think you will agree with me that Abe Lincoln, perhaps the most sainted president of the United States, appears to have been greatly impressed with this set of books.
So let's do a quick rundown of the titles of this history series that was responsible for "about all the historical knowledge" that Mr. Lincoln claimed to have, and that provided him with "just that knowledge of past men and events which [he] need[ed]."
In order, here are the "Makers Of History" as they appear on my shelves: Romulus, Alfred, Darius, Xerxes, Alexander, Pyrrhus, Cleopatra, Hannibal, Caesar, Nero, William the Conqueror, Genghis Khan, Henry IV, Hernando Cortes, Elizabeth, Mary Queen Of Scots, Peter the Great, Marie Antoinette, Josephine. (I think that my missing volume is Cyrus the Great.)
Other editions would have included Charles I and II, Henry VIII, Hortense, Joseph Bonaparte, King Philip, Louis XIV, Louis Philippe, Madame Roland, Margaret of Anjou, and Richards I, II and III.
Permit me to pose the question: What was their criteria for selecting these thirty-odd persons to fill their list of "makers of history"?
Not to criticize the Abbott brothers for selecting outstanding "makers of history" -- they were no doubt deservedly famous -- nor passing any negative judgments of their stylistic handling of their subjects, but do you notice anything, when you reread the list?
I don't know for sure what you see, of course, but I see a list of people that leans heavily toward the makers and agents of wars and empires -- or their consorts, or their rivals. Is that not so?
Here are some thoughts of mine, framed as rhetorical questions:
* Why is this idea of "makers of history" so biased that it selects only characters from political history, rather than including the explorers, scientists, sages, and saints who also made history?
* If we are going to select only from political history, why only from the narrative of "western civ" -- Greece, Rome, Western Europe, and the nations, such as the Persians and the Mongols, who threatened them? Could we have something to learn of political history from the Arabs, the Turks, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Russians, the Hindus, and many others?
* If we are going to restrict ourselves to western-related political history, why do we focus almost exclusively on those characters who were involved with conquest, empire, tyranny, and court intrigue -- and their consorts and their rivals -- rather than those who followed very different lights, and made a better history? Could we not have used a volume or two, say, on the development of the enlightened kingdom established by Ashoka, or on the founding of the Swiss Confederation, or the beginnings of Ireland, or the development of the Caliphate, with appropriate adventure and romance?
Forgive my seeming tendentious, what with my obvious bias against war; but I think that the makers of "the makers of history," and the chroniclers on whom they have relied, have been pretty tendentious themselves. Tendentious toward justifying and romanticizing the "adventure" of war, conquest, empire, race hatred, tyranny, and other gross villainies.
A more balanced set of the "Makers of History" might well have included, as I said, explorers, scientists, scholars, sages, saints, and founders of religions.
I could wish that "about all the historical knowledge" that Mr. Lincoln had, had prominently included some things other than what it did. Who knows, he might have discovered that there were some real and preferable alternatives even to the Civil War. But, as he said, he had just the knowledge that he needed.
And, we are reminded, he was a product of his times. Which we are, in ours, unless we decide to do something about it.